How running can improve your mental health

by | Oct 10, 2022 | Run, Opinion, Training, Training Insights

Running can elevate your mood immediately and has been proven to have long-lasting stress-busting effects.

I was struggling with motivation post-Covid lockdowns. As a copywriter, my creativity was way down and I found myself procrastinating heavily on basic writing work tasks.

After much research and talking with various people experiencing similar drops, I realised this dip in my overall mental health and well-being was almost directly linked to a massive drop in physical activity. Of course, this is not a blanket diagnosis but for me, I felt it was at the root of what was going on.

There is an old saying that goes: ‘Depression hates a moving target.’

The reason: When you do exercise (such as go for a run) you flood your body with endorphins. To radically paraphrase the science — running releases endorphins and endorphins make you happier.  

According to a study published in the Harvard Health Review: “Endorphins are released by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in response to pain or stress, this group of peptide hormones both relieves pain and creates a general feeling of well-being.”

For many years this was ‘believed’ to be the case (i.e scientists suspected it) but it was never quite proven because the only way to test if endorphins were present in the brain was by a spinal tap. That was until 2008, when a study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex reported that they had found an accurate method for measuring endorphins before and after exercise.

Man Running In Cape Town. Running Is Good For Your Mental Health
(c) Tembela Bohle / Pexels

In the experiment, twelve athletes were scanned and the level of endorphins in their brains measured. Then they completed a two-hour run, and were scanned again afterwards. The findings showed that “the level of endorphins was significantly increased after running.”

Now, and this is where things get interesting, according to David Linden, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, while endorphins definitely help prevent muscles from feeling pain, it is unlikely that endorphins in the blood contribute to a euphoric feeling – ie, the proverbial runner’s high does NOT come from endorphins because (again, to radically paraphrase the science) do not pass the blood-brain barrier.

This particular paper states that ‘the relaxed post-run feeling may instead be due to endocannabinoids — biochemical substances similar to cannabis but naturally produced by the body.’

Linden goes on to explain how ‘exercise increases the levels of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream… Unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can move easily through the cellular barrier separating the bloodstream from the brain, where these mood-improving neuromodulators promote short-term psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety and feelings of calm.’

So there is (some) of the science behind how running improves your mental health. What I do know, from personal experience is that, regardless of how it works, running can improve your mental wellness in three main ways:

Running can be a stress buster

Exercise has a dramatic anti-depressive effect. It is that simple and that complicated at the same time. In broad sweeps, the endorphins and endocannabinoids inhibit your brain’s response to emotional (and physical) stress thus improving your mental health. 

Running can make you more productive

Thanks to the positive mindset from increased activity (such as going for runs – you don’t need to be out there for hours, 20 mins two to three times a week is a good start) I got caught up far less in procrastination (much has been written about this recently) and I found myself clearer on what needed to be done and on which priority hierarchy. As an old-school journalist, time management has never been my strong point so this is a crucial one. For this (and there is an in-depth article on when to exercise/run coming soon) I found running in the morning the most effective.

Running can make you more creative

In addition to the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids, studies have shown that running produces a chemical called dopamine in your body which aids in improving mental health. which is most often associated with creativity. This particular study shows that the ‘runner’s high’ phenomenon is also caused by dopamine, an important neurotransmitter for motivation and creativity. In this highly insightful paper in Scientific American, Psychologist Colin DeYoung of the University of Minnesota explained that “the release of dopamine … increases motivation to explore and facilitates cognitive and behavioral processes useful in exploration.” The article outlines how ‘at the broadest level, dopamine facilitates psychological plasticity, a tendency to explore and engage flexibly with new things, in both behavior and thinking. Plasticity leads us to engage with uncertainty—whether it is pondering a new app to meet a consumer demand or questioning the next step in our own life path—exploring the unknown and finding reward in seeking its positive potential. With plasticity comes enhanced cognitive and behavioral engagement and exploration and, frequently, a commitment to personal growth.’ 

I fully buy into that. Right, time to go for a run. (Here are five of our favourite runs in National Parks to add to the general zen of the run).